Monday, September 16, 2019

All Packed Up and Nowhere to Go – How to really stop the world drowning in plastic

The Ancient Egyptians left us their pyramids. What will we leave for future generations?

In a way it’s a good thing that China has stopped taking much of our waste. It could be the wake -up call we need. We may finally notice what a problem it is. Locally it’s exacerbated by the fact that the biggest recycling company in Melbourne to whom we used to ship ours, has gone into liquidation, so now it may all have to go into landfill. So much for all that careful recycling, and this is just the waste that is recycled. Much of it still isn’t. With the exception of Melbourne, where the main recycling depot is, most of Australia still only recycles about 34% as does the USA, a rate at which it has stalled since about 2010 when recycling first became an issue. This seems to be as far as voluntary recycling can take us.  
It’s true that plastic represents only around 40% of the waste stream and plastic packaging even less, but plastic is so ubiquitous and persistent in the environment that it's now turning up in snow, as far afield as the Arctic, in drinking water, in the oceans, in marine mammals, and elsewhere in the food chain, and with as yet undetermined effects on our health.  I also think it’s an absolute disgrace that we send our trash overseas at all.  No one could fail to be appalled by images of dumps in places like Indonesia or the Philippines, where children play amongst the garbage, or by the effect it has on our wildlife

Personal dislikes -plastic bread bags, those awful nets onions come in and you see around the necks of baby turtles, bread tags and those damn stickers on fruit. Someone I spoke to recently about the latter, said they were biodegradable. Is this true? Either way I'll be looking to eliminate them from my life. I will write to the gluten free bread maker and the manufacturer of the vegan yoghurt that comes in plastic containers.

Over sixty countries have now introduced bans and levies on single use plastics. Canada banned throw away plates and cutlery and single use plastic bags in June 2018.  India will be doing so as from the second of October. This will cover not only usage, but manufacturing and import as well. After a six month transition period, fines and penalties will apply.  Furthermore India is also asking companies such as Amazon and Walmart which account for 40% of India’s packaging, to change their practices. The European Union is planning similar measures and some Chinese provinces such as Hainan and Shanghai are also starting to take action, particularly with respect to the catering industry. Some large corporations such as McDonald’s, Evian and ASDA (Sainsbury’s in the UK) are also taking the lead, although mostly it has been left to individual states, provinces, cities and consumers. According to the 2017 UN Report, poster child for the elimination of single use plastic bags appears to be Ireland, which, after introducing a tax on consumers in 2002,  saw consumption of single use plastic bags drop by 90% within a year. Greece achieved an 80% reduction in its first month after its 2007 ban, while Belgium has achieved an 80% reduction over ten years after introducing its tax in 2007 (UN Report p.34 -47).

What is really sad about this, is that when it comes to dealing with plastic some developed nations such as Australia, Canada and the USA, have fallen far behind small countries in Africa or in the Pacific such as Vanuatu, countries which have far more limited resources. Even more ridiculously, one US state, Michigan, has actually legislated AGAINST any kind of ban on plastic packaging to protect its suppliers and manufacturers. Might I suggest they start making cheap cloth bags instead? That would help countries such as Bangladesh whose efforts to ban plastic bags were thwarted by the lack of cheap alternatives. One province in Egypt, Hurghada overcame this by sending out 50,000 free cloth bags, along with a letter explaining the health and environmental reasons for doing so. In some cases too, although bans are in place, enforcement and monitoring of results are lacking.

Here in Australia, the Australian Packaging Covenant, a non - profit consisting of  packaging industry leaders and other stakeholders, reached a voluntary agreement in June this year to make 100% of packaging recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. I hate to be a spoilsport, but isn’t that a tad slow, particularly if our waste continues to grow at 4% a year, along with our population?
Some councils and businesses aren’t waiting that long and have banned the use of single use plastics in the catering industry - the straws, the coffee cups, the stirrers and the single use plastic bags. Hobart hopes to be free of these by 2020. During Plastic Free July the Hobart City Council trialled a Mug Library at Salamanca Market which proved rather poplular and may become a regular thing. If you want to know what a Mug Library is and how to start your own, Click Here.* As well as coffee shops offering discounts to people who bring their own cups, we are seeing a range of more biodegradable or reusable products.

The Keep Cup - Perfect gift for Co -workers, favoured clients, girlfriends, teens, millenials, hipsters, Secret Santas
and even Grandmas and Grandpas
-Photo by Rūta Celma on Unsplash

 The Hill Street Grocer near me which has an extensive salad bar, has recently changed to containers made from sugar cane waste and has always supplied brown paper carrier bags and had dispensers for things like nuts and lentils. It also has beautiful unwrapped bread that smells delicious when you come into the store. Doing the right thing can’t be that unprofitable either. Hill street has just opened its 9th store and employs loads of people, even a man who helps you park your car. The fruit and veg are excellent too and always fresh, despite being unwrapped.
At the Willie Smith Apple Festival a few weeks ago, they had no throw -away containers at all. At the entrance they sold $5 enamel mugs which you could return at the end to get your deposit back or take them home, in which case they were a not only a cheap and practical souvenir, but with Willie Smith’s logo on them, one that gives Willi Smith’s loads of free advertising wherever they end up. Everything else there was served in paper or cardboard and the cutlery was made of bamboo.  All of it was recycled after use too.

First stop at  the Willie Smith's Apple Festival. Enamel mugs make a useful souvenir and serve as continuous advertising
Of course, health food shops and farmer's markets have been inviting us to bring our own containers for years, but not everyone has the time, and I think far stronger action and signals are needed to move the mass of people.

Improving Domestic Recycling

The second strand of the Agreement wants to increase recycling of plastics to 30% by 2025. At present only 14% of these items are recycled in Australia. What a pity that we didn't implement the recommendations in our National Waste Policy of 2009  instead of leaving it to voluntary agreements, private enterprise, community groups, under resourced local councils and individuals to do the job, rather than showing a bit of national leadership. By contrast, Germany which currently leads the way in the recycling stakes, achieves 66%, followed closely by Wales (64%) and Singapore (61%).  What they and others in the top ten have in common, is that they charge according to the amount which actually goes out in your bin. They also have “other financial and behavioural incentives” (not sure what form these take) and they also fund recycling. I think the weighing is important - there must be a practical way to do it at the individual household level, or the Germans wouldn't be doing it - because it's unfair for conscientious people to always be doing the heavy lifting for those who can't be bothered. I will ask the Germans how they do it. More on this shortly.

 In our case, we also need much clearer guidelines and more uniformity around what can and can’t be recycled.  At present there are at least 1500 types of soft plastics (based on the type of sorting a machine in Geelong can do). Regulations vary considerably between states and municipalities and in what they can handle. Perhaps the vast number of different types could be reduced and thus make it easier to label, sort and reprocess.

 Container Deposits and Landfill Levies
Simply creating a national and hence uniform Container Deposit Scheme could also make significant difference here as has been demonstrated in South Australia, which has had one since the 1980’s. Simply by separating glass at source in this manner, it achieves a much higher financial return and glass shards no longer contaminate other recyclables. While most states have now adopted such measures, they vary from state to state and Tasmania and Victoria have yet to act.

Recycling the proceeds of recycling
Further, in all states except South Australia, money earned by recycling is simply swallowed up in consolidated revenue, whereas South Australia reinvests in capacity, education and infrastructure with its returns. Most councils have now introduced levies to deter people from using landfill, but there is no consistency which has lead to unintended consequences such as moving waste from one state to another, and also to illegal dumping. 

 Designing better products in the first place

 So much for the end- of –pipe issues. The third action agreed upon concerns reuse of recycled materials. For this we need whole -of -life cycle design and investment in research. Granted there is some being done at the University of New South Wales, but it needs to be on a large scale as has been done with respect to white goods in Japan. By 2012 Japan had already achieved 85% recovery with regard to domestic appliances and was aiming for 98%. Again it did not rely on the goodwill of other parties. Japan’s Home Appliance Recycling Law went into operation in 2001. It just takes a bit more political will and leadership. Germany made manufacturer’s responsible for their waste back in 1991 and they quickly got together to design better products for a circular economy. Now almost nothing is reprocessed outside the country.

How much nicer are these berry boxes? Image lifted from Jacquelynne Steves

Using recovered material

So now we have achieved higher recycling rates, the next step is to find outlets for the recovered products. In the USA, which has among the lowest recycling rates in the developed world, the EPA has at least come up with a preferred procurement policy whereby  recycled materials are not only tracked but favoured in some way, whether by a virgin material tax or other means. It maintains a directory of recyclers and suppliers of recycled materials, which should be easy to replicate. Guaranteed outlets for recycled or reprocessed materials would encourage investment by the private sector. Alternatively, the provision of infrastructure or grants to enable local councils and communities to do so, would yield long term economic, social and environmental benefits. It would be better still however, if we could some up with small scale industries, which don't involve plastics at all.

Hint: Personally I wouldn't mind a traditional Indian Tiffin tin. It would be a long lasting solution for lunches or takeaways

Fixated as they are on the economy and job creation, our leaders should be aware that recycling already employs some 20,000 people full time and 35,000 part time and generates 9.5 jobs for every 10,000 tonnes of waste. Given that other countries which currently accept waste may soon go the way of China – Indonesia for example, will no longer accept contaminated paper and e-waste, Thailand plans to stop importing foreign waste by 2021, it's high time that we came up with in -house solutions which do not depend on the vagaries of international markets. (It also creates less greenhouse gases than shipping it from place to place).

At present we have fallen far behind, but we should think of it as a sunrise industry, an opportunity where with some decisive leadership, investment, research, infrastructure and market development, we could not only solve our own problems but become leaders again.

Lastly, I would like to offer a couple of simple suggestions:
  1. Instead of those weird Safety Awards and the like, could we please give each worker a Keep Cup
  2. With respect to using recycled content, could we make strong portable emergency shelters for all those people unhomed by cyclones, earthquakes, floods and bushfires which are occurring with alarming force and frequency. And let's not forget the homeless either.   

* Kate Nelson The Plastic Free Mermaid, knows a lot about ocean plastics and has plenty of ideas about how to get them out of our lives. What's more, in her Plastic -free  July post, she mentions that it is NOT necessary to buy a whole lot of new stuff so you can go plastic -free as she has been for the last ten years :)

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Still no Road Trip..

Spring is in the air. Must be time to do a road trip. Back soon.....
Update: Saturday: No, it's not. We've just been promised another week of severe weather - floods, high winds etc. The farmers on our East Coast will be pleased!

Update: Sunday 15/4/2019

Still no road trip.I'm starting to think that this idea is utterly doomed. On Wednesday night the roof blew off our local school (winds 115Kph and very gusty) and since then I have been more or less surrounded by young persons who were at a loss as to what to do with their good fortune.  Then, just as that little crisis was almost over, I was struck down by a monstrous toothache, so here I am dental emergency taken care of and feeling rather grumpy and cabin feverish. Perhaps I'll try to write about plastic packaging, which I have been meaning to write about since Plastic- free July, but which has now reached a crisis point.

Meanwhile, I remain incautiously optimistic about the coming week. I won't say it aloud though, lest Huey the weather God hears me and I bring on a blizzard.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Threats to Tasmania's Raptors
Vulnerable - Tasmania's Masked Owl 
 Image - JJ Harrison ( per wiki under CC3

Since writing about raptors a couple of weeks ago, I have talked to wildlife expert and consultant Nick Mooney, who has had fifty years of experience with Tasmania’s native species focusing on birds of prey or raptors. The good news he said, was that the large raptors such as the Wedge – tailed Eagle and the White-bellied Sea-eagle do seem to be holding their own, possibly even increasing in areas where devils have drastically declined, thus freeing up much carrion. Changes in attitude and laws leading to decreased persecution have also helped. Sea-eagles may have also benefited from the many new artificial lakes and ponds. 

However, he warns, this could change rapidly if the thirteen wind farms proposed for Tasmania go ahead, together with all the supporting power lines and infrastructure. As the Spanish example with regard to Bonelli’s Eagle has shown, detailed surveys, tracking routes and hunting ranges and subsequently siting and designing for least impact, will be of utmost importance, but such strategic surveying and planning simply does not occur in Tasmania. The most that happens is that turbines are located 1 km from eagle nests but this 1 km is a distance borrowed from forestry advice on reducing disturbance and has no rational founding whatsoever in minimising physical risk from turbine blades.

Windfarm advocates routinely dismiss the birds killed at windfarms as insignificant compared to what cats kill but this pitch is mischievous he says, because the reality is chalk and cheese. Sure, cats kill more birds than windfarms do, but those numbers are highly misleading since cats usually kill many small birds, birds which can usually breed their way out of problems from increased mortality. But large raptors (which are amongst the rarest of birds) are wildly over - represented in the windfarm kill statistics and these birds are not able to breed their way out of problems from increased mortality. Windfarms are, worldwide, an increasing problem for large raptors, says Nick. 

Because the windfarm issue is well known and gets considerable publicity, Nick is far more concerned about our smaller raptors that get overlooked because they are relatively common – the Tasmanian Mopoke (aka Southern Boobook) and particularly, the Brown Falcon.  Judging by the numbers of the latter brought injured into refuges or found dead on his extensive road counts over decades, he estimates that they are down to 20% of their former strength. 

This may be from decreased breeding and/or increased mortality. It seems that the days of seeing scores of juveniles feeding on crickets and grasshoppers in single stubble fields in late summer are long gone. The main cause of injury of those found on roadsides seems to be collisions with vehicles but an old problem seems to be more apparent now; secondary poisoning, usually as a result of eating poisoned rats and mice.  

 The main reason for this appears to be intensifying agriculture and the use of anti-coagulant rodenticides, the newer (‘second generation’) ones which kill in ONE application, rather the older type (‘first generation’) of anti- coagulants which took multiple doses.The weaker older poisons, allowed more birds to recover after ingesting poisoned prey..  This issue has long been known but got much press a few years ago when Parks and Wildlife officers on Macquarie Island sought to remove introduced rats and mice to enable native species to recover. Previous eradication efforts had not much affected native bird populations, but the new products certainly did and populations took some years to recover from the successful eradication of rats, mice and rabbits (a remarkable achievement in itself). 

As Nick says, sufficient numbers of raptors on or around a property to begin with, would help prevent the rodent problem peaking in the first place – predators often buffer the population ‘booms’ in prey but they have to be  in high numbers to do so. Sadly, right now, no one knows how our prime avian rodent catchers – the Masked Owls, Tasmanian Mopokes and Tawny Frogmouths are faring. They are secretive creatures that hunt mostly at night and are not easily surveyed without tracking equipment.

As in many a Third World country, few comprehensive surveys are done in Tasmania and sophisticated conservation has increasingly taken a backseat to economic development, seemingly at any cost. While I am all in favour of renewable energy, at this stage, it doesn’t appear that Tasmanians will benefit much from the proposed developments which may in fact compete with our sales of hydro -electricity, while tourism, including wildlife tourism and our fine food and wine industry which trade on our “pristine” environment and already bring in far more, may well suffer. 
What about jobs? With the first large windfarm in the Central Highlands almost at the commission stage, it would appear that  the project will only employ about TWO Tasmanians to dig a couple of holes and pour a bit of concrete.
Just because the proposed developments are out of sight of a clamouring populace, doesn’t mean we should let them pass without rigorous assessment. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Walking the Thumbs

View from the Picnic Ground - The Thumbs

I felt thrice blessed this weekend. For a start I got out into the bush for the first time in ages and my walking buddy was able to come with me (his idea actually). Wattle bloomed along the roadsides together with the occasional flowering plum or cherry in a front garden. It was also a perfectly sunny day – no wind, no showers – I am sure there are children alive in Tasmania today, who have never seen this phenomenon. Lastly, I saw not one, but three Wedge- Tailed Eagles, riding the thermals above us. More about them shortly.

One of three Wedge Tailed Eagles

The Thumbs are a group of three small peaks about 2 Km off the Wiegelanta Road, just outside Orford, but the road to them is largely unsealed, so don’t take your hire car there. There’s a small picnic area there – no water or toilets, and a nice little walk which is supposed to take around two hours. It is mostly known for its excellent views of Maria Island and the East Coast and as one wag wrote, “It’s not often that the best views are to be had before you start your walk.” 

Almost at the top of the Second Thumb -what the track notes don't say is that there are very steep gullies between them

Nevertheless, we set off and conquered two of the hills before the last one stared us down. My friend had to be back in town by four, so we reluctantly had to leave it at that for the day, but hating unfinished business of this kind, I drove there again on Sunday and did all three.

The turquoise waters of  Freycinet are visible from the second lookout

Hakea lissosperma - Mountain Needlebush - almost in flower

Cythodes Glauca - Purple Cheeseberry, an endemic. Had often seen the red , pink and white ones, which grow here too, but not these. Some were almost black. What a shame they aren't very edible! 

Standing on the Second Thumb, the first one obscures the waterviews

Nice view of the surrounding mountains though

The next day......

On the Sunday, despite the fairly promising weather forecast - only 2% chance of rain, the weather wasn't nearly as nice. A fierce wind blew most of the time, threatening to bring down dead branches or even trees. I'm sure the 360 views from the top of the last thumb were pretty spectacular, but  it started to drizzle and I didn't want to linger long. It also grew very dark and the rain began bucketing  down just as I got back to the car.  One sunny day does not a spring make, but I was thrilled to have seen those eagles.

Looking across at the third Thumb from the top of the second. There's a steep drop in between
The wind grows stronger and dark rainclouds  smudge the sky as I near the top, weather forecast notwithstanding

At the Third Lookout  -Trig Point to prove I made it, but  then it's Goodbye Thumbs, it's been nice knowing you!

I suppose this lovely cartoon by Leunig via the Leunig Appreciation Society sums it up: